Reparative Therapy Cannot Cure Bigotry: SPLC Files Suit Against Anti Gay Organizations

ByDiana Denza

In the 1950s and '60s, those suspected of homosexuality were routinely hauled off to psychiatric wards. Some, like Peter Price, were placed in windowless rooms, forced to look at pornographic images of men, and take injections of vomit inducing drugs. According to a shocking BBC report, psychiatrists left Price to lie in his own excrement for three days.

Along with electroshock therapy, the medical community sanctioned these practices as “treatments” for homosexuality. Today, the American Psychological Association (APA) decries attempts to alter sexual orientation as torturous and ineffective, a sham that damaged and even killed LGBT people. The APA formally declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973.

Nevertheless, so-called “reparative therapy” for homosexuality continues, and it can be a whole lot like what you’ll find on this season of American Horror Story. From being told to strip down naked and endure verbal abuse to engaging in violent role play exercises, clients of organizations like the National Association for Research Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Jews Offering New Alternatives for Homosexuality (JONAH) suffer through spirit-crushing ordeals. But this time, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and four gay victims are fighting back — and they’re doing it through the courts.

Deemed a “first-of-its-kind lawsuit,” JONAH is facing a major legal challenge for allegedly violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.

The plaintiffs in the Hudson County, N.J., Superior Court suit are Michael Ferguson, Benjamin Unger, Sheldon Bruck, and Chaim Levin. Arthur Goldenberng, JONAH co-director and co-defendant, promised a then-17-year-old Bruck that he “could help him change his orientation from gay to straight.” The premise of the case is fairly simple: You promise services you can’t deliver, you get sued.

“JONAH profits off of shameful and dangerous attempts to fix something that isn’t broken,” said Christine P. Sun, deputy legal director for the SPLC, in a press release. “Despite the consensus of mainstream professional organizations that conversion therapy doesn’t work, this racket continues to scam vulnerable gay men and lesbians out of thousands of dollars and inflicts significant harm on them.”

Arthur Goldberg, the ex-Wall Street executive who founded JONAH, was previously convicted of several counts of fraud and is a disbarred attorney. This time, his organization is accused of raking in $100 per “counseling” session. CNN reports that some families shelled out up to $10,000 per year for the sessions. According to SPLC’s suit, one meeting involved a client grabbing the “testicles” (represented by two oranges) of another client. They were also encouraged to blame their parents for causing their gayness.

“These counselors are skilled at manipulating you into believing just about anything,” said Unger in a press release. “During my time with JONAH, they told me constantly that my mom had made me gay. I was so convinced that I refused to have any contact with her for several months, which caused a great deal of damage to our relationship.”

According to CNN, the plaintiffs have suffered through trauma, severe depression, and impaired relationships as a result of their JONAH “treatments.” 

Though this is the first suit against a “reparative therapy” group, it isn’t unprecedented. Earlier this year, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill outlawing these practices on minors. The move was supported by some of the state’s most prestigious mental health organizations.

The challenge to JONAH’s practices comes soon after the historic 2012 election, during which LGBT activists and allies won vital marriage-related victories in four states and a president who openly supports equality. Let’s hope the momentum continues with an end to harmful, degrading “therapy” for LGBT people.